Classical Liberalism (or Libertarianism) often gets a bad rap because people frequently mistake its suspicion of government to mean that it considers government as “optional” or, at best, a necessary evil. In fact, I’ve even met a few libertarians who themselves seem to believe this. However, such beliefs that the very concept of government in and of itself is anything other than necessary for a harmonious society and therefore good has no leg to stand on within the intellectual heritage of classical liberalism. I will never cease to wonder at how so many can so easily confuse the ideals of classical liberalism and anarchy when, in fact, their ethos are utterly contrary to each other.
Ludwig von Mises, who is one of the most influential of the classical liberals, was highly critical of anarchism in his book, Liberalism: “Anarchism misunderstands the real nature of man. It would be practicable only in a world of angels and saints.” Interestingly the classical liberals and many others since have stated the exact same thing of socialism. Professor of Law Richard Epstein stated that the great heresy of socialism was that it denied Original Sin and I think the same can be said of anarchism. Original Sin is not a purely Christian sentiment but a universal one recognizing man as imperfect. Classical Liberalism recognizes man as imperfect which is why we need an organized body of laws in order to protect our liberty. French classical liberal Frederic Bastiat sums up this belief when he stated that “the law is justice”. We must always be skeptical of authority but to oppose legitimate, lawful authority when constrained within its natural bounds of protecting our rights is to oppose justice.
Classical liberalism, from Mises to Bastiat to many others, has always been incredibly critical of government. They saw the many programs of government as legalized plunder meant to favor particular groups at the expense of others and many government regulations as coercive, constraining the natural freedom of man and therefore immoral. The classical liberals proposed instead a state severely limited by free enterprise, with the market acting as a check on state power, whose only purpose was the protection of liberty, national defense, and the establishment of a court system to settle disputes. That is small government, but it is still government and therefore incompatible with an entirely anarchic system (or lack of system since that is what genuine anarchy represents). The very fact that Mises and others could despise any expansion of government power beyond these basic functions yet still embrace an austere state is testament to just how necessary they believed the state to be and to the natural goodness of the law. A strong rule of law, readily enforceable, represents a necessary, albeit insufficient, prerequisite to liberty and justice for all. The modern world is ripe with examples to affirm this point: economist Thomas Sowell, in his book Basic Economics, points out that many poor nations in Africa are rich in resources. However, they cannot utilize those resources fully because no legal system exists protecting property rights. People have property: they live in “their” houses and use “their” tools but ownership is not recognized by the state and the result is anarchy. Which is to say, the result is chaos and no economy is benefited by chaos.
Anarchy has no rule of law. “The law is justice.” Anarchy has no justice. An anarchist told me that Bastiat meant Natural Law when he said those words and not human law. Anarchy is guided by Natural Law. Bastiat and other classical liberals were significant proponents of the Natural Law. However, while human law should most certainly reflect Natural Law, that is to say that Natural Law should drive public policy, how do you implement Natural Law without human law? How do you enforce the Natural Law without a state, without a police force? A law that cannot be enforced is impotent and therefore ineffective in guiding society. No, anarchy represents nothing more than the advantage of the stronger. We are under constant threat from government but we must not forget that the reason that we need government in the first place is because we are also a constant threat to each other. We need checks and balances to protect us from government: division of power and a free market. However, we also need checks and balances placed upon individuals and that we call “the State.” Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical, Libertas, confirms the necessity of human law, “For, law is the guide of man’s actions; it turns him toward good by its rewards, and deters him from evil by its punishments.” That this reality must be enforced by some men over other men is precisely what anarchy tries to deny, yet it is the one thing that classical liberalism recognizes as the proper role of government: that, without a strong rule of law, there can be no justice and both freedom and faith suffer.
Classical liberalism does not seek to abolish the state because it recognizes that the state, and its coercive power, is necessary to protect liberty and justice. “The law is justice.” Classical liberals like Mises and Bastiat recognized that to abolish the law would lead to anarchy and that this was bad because the absence of a rule of law would be nothing more than mob rule, the advantage of the stronger and would lead to widespread human rights violations and violence. Only a society of angels and saints would not deteriorate into violence when might makes right and that is what Mises was referring to: anarchists deny that reality.
In the absence of the enforcement of the Natural Law by the state anarchy offers instead simply mod rule and, in this way, it is identical to socialism because both are ruled by collectivism. Thus, both end with the same consequences resultant from collectivism: totalitarianism. Both organized collectivism and the mob rule resultant from the complete absence of law, the disorganized collectivism of anarchy, boil down to the advantage of the stronger. The men of superior brains or charisma rise to the top and implement the force of a nascent totalitarian state so that their might makes right. It is the natural order of men’s disordered ambitions. Fallen man seeks power. That is a fact and, in the absence of the checks and balances placed upon the individual, men are “free” to seek power over other men without the threat of the law. This is why Pope John Paul II stated that “Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.” To be without the constraint of the law, to do whatever we please, inevitably ends in slavery.
And that is why the classical liberals denounced anarchy and embraced a minimalist state model. In his book Liberalism under the chapter entitled “State and Government” Ludwig von Mises said the following, “Liberalism is not anarchism, nor has it anything whatsoever to do with anarchism. The liberal understands quite clearly that without resort to compulsion, the existence of society would be endangered and that behind the rules of conduct whose observance is necessary to assure peaceful human cooperation must stand the threat of force if the whole edifice of society is not to be continually at the mercy of any one of its members. One must be in a position to compel the person who will not respect the lives, health, personal freedom, or private property of others to acquiesce in the rules of life in society. This is the function that the liberal doctrine assigns to the state: the protection of property, liberty, and peace.”